Tag Archives: Girton


June 15th, 2010. Late afternoon/evening. Cold for June, but the evening sun is out and I am soon warmed. The willows by the brook are shedding downy seeds by the thousands, which drift to earth like snow falling in slow motion. Milk thistle is in purple flower, and mallow. White clover is out, and the first scraggy bramble blooms. Dog rose and elder still dominate the hedgerows.

I go west to the big open fields between the village and the A14. It is unusually, and disturbingly, quiet. The river of traffic a mile away is barely audible, for the breeze is blowing from the east and I am upwind. With some trepidation I make my way to the lapwing field, a great stretch of fallow stubble, set aside it seems, where I have been keeping an eye on a few pairs of this red-listed bird since March. I don’t know what to expect. Through a gap in the hedge I slowly scan the field from one side to the other, astonished. There are at least three dozen iridescent dark green and purple lapwings on the ground (which constitutes a desert of lapwings, according to the the 15th century Book of St. Albans), and a few are wheeling and plunging about in the air. Many are juveniles, half the size of their parents, but fully-fledged and airborne. They have, evidently, bred with some success in this bare, open, unfrequented spot. Mingling with the lapwings (or peewits or green plovers as they are sometimes called) are gangs of starlings. A hare, the colour of the earth, lopes across the field unhurriedly, stopping frequently, followed by another. Three mistle thrushes, the first I’ve seen hereabouts, stand upright at the edge of the fallow, gazing at the sky. Their chestnut-spotted breasts shine like shields in the sun. I break cover to continue my walk and as soon as I move the lapwings take wing, shrieking one-note alarm calls instead of their characteristic two-note pee-wit, pee-wit. They hang suspended in the air till I’m gone.

I turn south and make my way through the wheat fields, along banks, ditches, verges and the occasional hedgerow. No footpaths here. Meadow Browns precede me, though they rarely alight long enough for me to get a good look. I should carry a butterfly-net. Here and elsewhere the wheat has been grazed back ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty feet from the edge of the field, as neatly as if it had been mown. The depredations of rabbits. The loss to the farmer must be considerable. Approaching Girton I come across another lapwing field, the same as the first, unploughed and unsown, largely bare earth, stubbled with the weak stems of some previous crop. Here there are at least 75 lapwings on the ground, sitting or standing. This little district seems to be something of a lapwing haven and I wonder if these two fields have not been especially prepared and set aside for the bird. They are curiously free of all vegetation. A wild far-carrying cry from above heralds a cruising buzzard, on the look out for young lapwings no doubt, and several adults spring up into the air to chase it away. The buzzard flaps on, lazily, shrugging off its persecutors.

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April 23rd, 2010. Late afternoon.  9½ miles.

Most of this walk was along tarred, vehicular roads with unnatural, unforgiving, foot-jarring surfaces so I not only felt I was tramping (properly ‘stamping, walking heavily’) but felt like a tramp to boot.  I am now engaged in systematically exploring the few remaining unvisited tracts on the edge of my 4-mile diameter circle of territory. I head south-west to a section between Bar Hill and Madingley, beyond the A14 divide. To get there I have to walk a mile along the main road between Oakington and Dry Drayton, which passes over the A14, so that I can pick up a bridleway marked on the map. I find the bridleway sign, just off the hard shoulder of the northbound carriageway, but it is pointing into an impenetrable thicket. I discover the right-of-way itself nearby, barred by a gate, expropriated as a private driveway within someone’s garden. It’s a no-go area as far as I’m concerned. I walk a little way down the litter-strewn verge and cut through the crematorium to see if I can reach the bridleway from another direction.

The crem, as it is affectionately called, is unsurprisingly orderly, sanitized, polite. The grounds are green, clipped and spacious. Pleasant to walk through… perhaps because there is no action this evening, no smoke from the chimney (have they gone smokeless perhaps?). Tucked away in a corner, on a knoll, is a heart-rending tree-shrine. A sapling adorned with mementos – a silver star hanging from a branch, a fading plastic-wrapped photo of an overjoyed Mum hugging a baby, another of an awkward young teenager, a model silver motorbike suspended by a thread, and a motorbike tax disc holding a message, tacked into the wood. 20 years old. It’s not hard to discern how he died. How they must have poured their grief into this tree, watered it with their tears, his family and friends. Death on the road, and even in death remembered, fittingly, beside a roaring avalanche of traffic. It’s a poignant reminder. My son and I both ride motorbikes. My instructor used to say that Death lurked just around the corner, waiting for the unwary. Bikers or not, we would do well to remember the Lurker.

A gap in the hedge brings me onto the sought-after bridleway, a dry dirt track that winds through fields of flowering rape. There are, I am pleased to see, a few butterflies on the wing, the canaries of the agrochemical industry, and now something of a rarity – small whites, brimstones, a pair of orange tips joined in conjugal flight, and peacocks, flaunting their rich, red-velvet wings, each adorned with a conspicuous round ‘eye’. Beck Brook is here, three miles upstream from my own Westwick Bridge, a mere runnel, barely flowing, overgrown, just a stone’s throw from its indiscernible and undefined source. This side of the A14 watershed, the western side, is a subtly different country. The soil is sandier, the trees taller, the land begins to rise. Properties are larger, farms are neater, hedges, some of them, are properly laid.

Today I hug trees. Not for comfort, nor in empathy, but in the interests of history. One way of estimating the age of a tree is to measure its girth, or waist, at chest height or 1.5 metres from the ground, near enough. But who in their right mind carries a tape-measure on their person when out for a walk? Not even a tailor. So you measure it with hugs, arms outstretched, from fingertip to fingertip, which of course is the fathom, one of the old human-based units of measurement. The largest and oldest tree I hug today is an oak, presumably an English or pedunculate oak, not especially ancient, but stately. It is 3½ hugs round, 3½ hugs old. That’s a girth of two inches short of 20 feet or just over 6 meters (5’ 8” or 173 cms, my hug, x 3½). According to the tables published by the Woodland Trust this makes it just over 400 years old, planted (deliberately, probably, in view of its location on a field boundary) about 1609, the year when Shakespeare first published his sonnets and Galileo Galilei demonstrated his first telescope. It looks like it could easily live for another 400 years.

a three-and-a-half-hug oak

I tramp up the B-road to the edge of tree-lined Madingley, passed by open-top convertibles driven by career-women too old for their cars. Ride-on mowers purr behind shrubberies. The road verges are like lawns, the lawns like bowling greens. Shiny new Range Rovers are displayed in front of freshly-thatched cottages and converted farmhouses. We have definitely moved out of the fen-edge.

Turning towards home I hope to pick up a footpath further on down the B-road. A mile on I find the sign and stile, but no path. According to the map, it runs through the middle of a field, but the farmer has simply expunged it. It has been obliterated by beans. Not wanting to trample the little plants, I am forced round the edge of the field in order to reach the gap and wooden footbridge over which the path once led. The stretch across the next field has also been ploughed over, and on the far side I can see where the line of the path meets the embankment of a very busy road. Eventually I get there, climb over a wooden fence and up the bank, onto the edge of the two-lane northbound section of the A14 where it feeds into the M11, no hard shoulder, just crash barriers. Traffic bearing down on me. The sign’s still there – Public Footpath to Madingley 1½, Dry Drayton 2 – but the Highways Agency, the County Council and the local farmers have conspired to wipe this ancient right-of-way off the land, if not the map. The public path continues eastwards towards Girton, but it has been severed at this point by no less than three murderous roads. Of course, only a fool would attempt to use this footpath now. So in the interests of my mission to walk every yard of my 12½ square mile patch, especially each designated footpath, bridleway, byway, and lane, I must soldier on. In any case, the nearest safe crossing is miles away.

The traffic is relentless. It’s the Friday evening exodus. Patience, patience…  it’s just a matter of waiting. And soon, indeed, there is a break in the flow, and I manage to cross without being blown away by the blare of truckers’ horns. I dive through 50 yards of scrubby woodland and emerge onto the M11. This is a different kettle of fish. Six lanes of manic motorway traffic, hurtling. But it’s a pretty constant flow – 60 mph in the slow lane, 80 at least in the central lane, 100 + in the fast lane – which means it’s predictable. The mind, unconsciously, calculates, the decision is taken (by whom?), and the body moves. Bismillah! There’s no turning back. To hesitate is to die. I reach the central reservation and the safety of the barriers. Next carriageway. I peer into the distance of the oncoming traffic, 200, 300 yards upstream, looking out for the gaps. But, if anything, this southbound traffic is even denser. I’m stuck in the worst place imaginable – the central reservation of a motorway at peak hour on a Friday evening. Relax… what’s the worst that could happen? And then, magically, the traffic parts, and I take the plunge. It’s a stroll in the park actually, and I’m over. Nearly there, just two lanes of east-bound A14 traffic to negotiate. Again, it’s just a matter of timing then acting like lightning. It’s a doddle. I’m over. Yes, no doubt there are a number of very alarmed drivers and passengers out there, some of whom might well be on their mobiles to the police right now, but I feel it has achieved one small victory against the machine, one small assertion of a priceless historic right on behalf of every free Englishman and Englishwoman. Though I shan’t be making a habit of it.

I follow the continuation of the public footpath to the east, leading into the tree-lined and lovely Washpit Lane and Duck End of lower Girton. Grey squirrels precede me, taking the aerial route. I am, again, trudging on tarmac. My feet and ankles are protesting in earnest against this obdurate, unyielding surface. I leave the road to escape the traffic and give my feet a break, turning onto a footpath towards Histon, the neighbouring village. But this is a new path, constructed not worn, and its makers, who are not walkers I’ll warrant, have seen fit to surface it in a concrete-hard clinker, which is worse even than tarmac to walk on. At Histon I’m on real concrete, pounding the deserted guided-busway towards the north, my feet feeling heavier and heavier with each step. It is only when I reach the main road that I can branch off along a grassy field track and retouch the ground. It is late in the evening, growing dark.

And it is here that I meet a remarkable young woman, a girl in fact. She is the second today. On this long walk, apart from 1000 motorists and truck-drivers, with whom I  have made only the slightest and briefest of eye-blinking acquaintance, I have encountered only two other humans. Both have been girls, perhaps 14 or 15 (though it’s difficult to tell), both out riding alone, both straight-backed, open-faced, cool, confident, assured. That’s what sitting on a horse gives you, I guess. The first, near Madingley, ambles round the corner of the track on a well-groomed, shiny bay. I am consulting a map. “Are you lost?” she asks. Am I lost? I want to tell her that, existentially speaking, yes, we are all lost, but cannot lay such a burden on so young a heart. “No, no. Thanks. I know more or less where I am.” “OK. Enjoy your walk”. She passes on, without breaking stride. The second is here, between Histon and Oakington. She is riding towards me on a beautiful skewbald. She stops beside me. “What are you looking for?” – this in the sweetest of well-spoken voices. What am I looking for? What is it with the deep questions today, from such unlikely quarters? Then I realize she must have noticed my binoculars. “Oh, anything living… you know, foxes, owls….”, I reply. “I’ve seen lots of pheasants”, she says. Then, as she nudges her pony forward, a benediction. “Well, I hope you find what you’re looking for”. They must be angels, these two, slipping into and out of my life with such questions. Are you lost? What are you looking for? Questions to last one a lifetime.


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evening ramble 27

6th April, 2010. It’s dry, and not especially warm, with the sun veiled behind thin cloud and a steady breeze blowing out of the south-west. Still, it’s a fine evening to be out. I head for unexplored ground at the southern edge of my territory, a 6 mile round trip. I cut through the rec and the planted copse onto the guided busway. Spent catkins from the poplars that line the brook are strewn over the ground like purple fire-crackers. An enormous field of rape has seemingly sprung up overnight, so fast is its growth at this time of year. It has already formed tight green florets, like mini-calabrese, which taste good, I find, even raw. It won’t be long before this part of the parish, like large swathes of England, turns bright yellow, inducing allergies, hay fever and asthma among some unfortunates living nearby. Most of it will end up as cheap blended vegetable oil on the bottom shelf in the supermarkets, but cold-pressed rapeseed oil, if you can get it, is as nutritious and tasty as olive oil – without the air-miles.

I walk up the track of the still idle guided busway, and further on, past the built edge of Histon. An ungainly dog-like animal the size of a spaniel lopes across the pasture about 200 yards away. It is a muntjac deer, its white undertail flashing with each bound. It disappears into the hedgerow at the far end of the field. A few minutes later it is followed by another, but this one is sauntering. It trots, then walks, with head down, rump up, wandering here and there, in no hurry. It hangs around at the edge of the field with the rabbits and pheasants. I hear a short bark, and then another, so dog-like I’m sure it’s not muntjac … but then again they are also called barking deer so it might be them. They are not often abroad in the daylight.

A green woodpecker is on the ground in a paddock. It’s looking up into the sky, quizzically, as if waiting for an answer. It continues thus for five minutes or more. For the first time I get a really good look at this omnipresent but elusive bird with the maniacal laugh. Its back is pure olive green, its crown crimson, and its face black, which gives it a fierce demeanor. But the most noticeable thing is its long, black sword of a beak… it is, after all, a woodpecker. Only when it loops away in flight is its bright yellow-green rump conspicuous. Along the way, a greenfinch wheezes, while a chiffchaff endlessly repeats its squeaky-wheelbarrow song, perhaps the most irritating in bird-dom. A pair of courting collared doves mew hoarsely before alighting on top of a telephone pole.

I head across fields to the village of Girton along signposted paths. This is dog country, and they are out in force today, followed by attendants desperately trying to assert some control as they climb all over me (the dogs). I should know better. I vow to avoid all designated footpaths leading out of villages – they are invariably fouled. I walk through lower Girton and down tree-lined Washpit Lane, which leads along a tiny brook, presumably at one time ponded to provide a dip for village sheep. I am approaching the A14 at its juncture with the M11 and the roar has been gathering. Suddenly I am on the highway, in the thick of it, and forced to walk on the footpath facing three lanes of hurtling oncoming traffic. The air is sour with overheated rubber. Two of Eddie Stobbart’s juggernauts, ‘the future of multimodal logistics’, blow my beanie clean off my head  in quick succession. The deep ditch and shelter belt beside the road is awash with litter – bits of vehicles, gaping tyres, plastic sheeting, bottles, truckers’ jetsam. It really is a most unpleasant place, and I cannot escape.

A little further on, however, Beck Brook, that runs north-east like a silver thread through the whole of my patch, from one end to the other, and which is here a mere slip of water, emerges from underneath the carriageway and there is a break in the fencing. I clamber down the bank and away from the maelstrom. I follow the rill, and every step brings relief. Here, upstream, the brook is not so deeply set in its banks; it is more meandering, and shallower of course – a natural stream at last, though tiny.

A black squirrel bolts for the safety of a tall waterside tree and corkscrews up it as I move round to get a better look. At about thirty feet it dives into a hole, then pops its head out to see what I’m up to. Its eyes bulge blue from its pure black face. I’ve seen black squirrels bound across the main street in Girton in previous years, and a friend reports seeing them in Cottenham, a neighbouring village, but I’ve not seen them in the countryside before. They are mutants and localized, favoured, apparently, by lady grey squirrels, and thus spreading rapidly though the eastern counties.

I make my way homeward across big open prairie fields, mostly down to winter wheat. The sun is low on the horizon, still hazy. A buzzard launches off from an isolated tree – even at 300 yards I am too close for comfort. It flies with slow, laboured wingbeats as if they are waterlogged, and lets out one plaintive, wilding cry. It is well within range of previous sightings, so is probably one I have already encountered. Over the next field it is mobbed by a lapwing, which flies up fast to meet it, much smaller of course, but also more agile. The buzzard moves on. I find the lapwing, and its mate, in the middle of an open fallow field, thinly stubbled violet-grey from some previous crop. They are probably nesting, given the fierce territorial attack on the buzzard. This is one of the few yet unploughed fields in the neighbourhood, and I fear the farmer will soon get round to it, burying the scrape and its eggs beneath a weight of cold sod. It is indeed a most precarious existence.


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